Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Temporary residents - a review of Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level. It’s one of the best novels I have ever read. Its apparent simplicity continually reveals and interprets the complex, nuanced relationships we have with identity, individuality, family and aspiration. It’s how we manage our inescapable selfishness that seems to count. 

The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He’s also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom’s wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that’s trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She’s the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life.

Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It’s easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character. Chick is Chinese..

At the book’s start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans. And then there’s the apparently peripheral figures – the employer that happily watches his Sino-Mexican gang strip asbestos, the failed English hack who profitably reinvents himself as something hip, the college colleagues intent on asserting status, the dot com employees out for show.

They are all superbly portrayed, perhaps with both sympathy and derision. Functional they may be, but they are never less than credible and suggest that each may be worthy of their own novel. Almost as you would expect, Tom and Beth’s marriage disintegrates. It kind of flakes at the edges until the centre cannot hold. She buys a new condo, perhaps thus revealing her enduring but unexpressed and suppressed distaste of the old house. She soon has a new nest mate or two.

Finn reacts as children do and his sharing out between the less than estranged partners complicates. Tom, of course, falls apart, except in public, as does publicly the house he continues to inhabit. He drinks, takes up smoking, but never seems to miss a meal, especially when Fin is around. He hires Chick, the Chinese immigrant, who is now doing roofing jobs with his own Mexican gang. As a relief from the grind, Tom takes a long, self-absorbed, creative walk, an act that might just have changed everything.

We meet a policeman with his own scores to settle with life. The richness of Waxwings’ canvas is staggering and thoroughly enriching. But the masterstroke comes at the end and, for the ornithologist, it was there from the start. It relates to the habits of Waxwings. In their own way, all of these characters are passing migrants in the place that sustains them. Beth is part Irish, hence Finn. Tom is English, his family Hungarian refugees. Chick is Chinese. And everyone, individually is bent on stripping as many of life’s berries off the tree as they can reach. It’s a great study of the self.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bel Canto by Anna Patchett

As a music lover, I wish I could sing the praises of Anna Patchett’s Bel Canto. I always look forward to reading books about musicians, especially composers, and usually I am disappointed. Bel Canto was no exception. Anna Pratchett is in good company, however, for I was not convinced by Ian McEwan’s character in Amsterdam, nor Carpentier’s in The Lost Steps, to name but a couple. Being a singer, I thought that Bel Canto’s principal character, Roxane Coss, might be more responsive to a writer’s pen, but she wasn’t.

Music is always a strange, inconstant friend. Though it never revolts, it can often disappoint. Even when programmes and performers seem completely matched, a spark may fail to ignite the whole into complete experience. Bel Canto lacked that spark. Bel Canto’s programme presents much promise.

Roxane Coss is a world renowned singer. She has performed everywhere, sung all the famous roles in the greatest houses and worked under the baton of every maestro. People don’t just admire her: it goes much further than that. Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese corporate bigwig, is one such worshipper.

When, for some reason, he finds himself in an unnamed amalgam of South American countries on his birthday, he is treated to an invitation only recital by said soprano at the house of Ruben Iglesias, Vice-President of the republic, no less. It’s interesting to note that the President himself had been invited, but he never attends any function that clashes with Coronation Street, or its Spanish language equivalent on the tele.

So, while Roxane Coss is waxing lyrical through her arias, the President no doubt is up to his neck in innuendo, melodrama and pouting looks that tell of treachery, infidelity, scorn and envy. Not a bit like opera… just add soap. Back in the Vice-President’s house, an admixture of invitees lap up the Italian in their diverse languages. There are Japanese speakers, Italian, French, Russian and Spanish, amongst others, as well as the occasional sentence in English.

A young Japanese interpreter in the employ of Mr Hosokawa, a lad called Gen, has all the gen needed to translate, sometime with a touch of humour. His skills were always going to be needed, but they become essential when the evening is hijacked by a terrorist group seeking hostages and their leverage. It’s not quite, “Take this residence to Cuba”, but it’s well on the way. While Graham Greene in his Honorary Consul used the incompetence of the act as plot device, strangely Ann Patchett never really explores just why it was that her own gang of terrorists missed their own boat by such a long way.

But then these guys – and gals – are not real terrorists, at least not the real terrorists that actually kill people. They are of a more refined type, a kind of semi-professional bunch with military connections as well as pretensions, but not much of an ideology. Early on, the unfortunate Vice-President gets one in the mush and needs sewing up around the face. It’s a pity that wound seemed not to affect his speech.

So here are the elements. A worshipping assemblage of music lovers divided by language but united by their interpreter are held hostage in a prominent residence which becomes besieged. They are held together by the commonality of their plight and the heavenly voice of Roxane Coss, which, luckily for all of them, holds up despite the strain. The relationships between the hostages, their love of music, their situation alongside tensions provided by captors and their pursuers ought to offer a wonderful opportunity for character, plot, relationships and reminiscences to come to the fore.

Unfortunately, they don’t and frankly, not much else emerges to fill the void. There’s a couple of romances, French lessons in the broom cupboard under the stairs, unlikely endings, even less likely beginnings. There’s a modicum of humour, but neither of the book’s threads, its music and its languages, are developed. It’s worth reading, but, like a concert where the performers didn’t gel, it ultimately disappoints.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa has written a novel called The Housekeeper + The Professor. At least that’s what it says on the front. On the back it’s title replaces the + with “and”. It’s a good book, well written, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable, but it’s also a book that falls well short of its stated intention. Personally, I blame the designer, because on the title page there’s “and”, not the + symbol. The difference is important. The book’s content affirms that.

The Professor of the title is a former specialist academic mathematician and, guess what, the Housekeeper is his housekeeper. Back in the 1970s, the professor suffered a serious road accident, a head-on collision that left him seriously disabled, not physically, but mentally as a result of head injuries. He needs care, not least because his memory span is precisely eighty minutes. 

Anything that happened longer ago than four times twenty minutes is unknown to him. His life and knowledge from before the accident have been indelibly etched into an unchanging recollection of the past, but the present is eternally and precisely eighty minutes of age. His new housekeeper takes up her post. She finds a dishevelled old man with post-it notes stuck to his suit. It’s his way of remembering things that happened an hour and a half ago. His apparent disorganisation is something of an illusion. She soon finds that somehow memories trivia associated with the adhesive notes are stored. He loves baseball, and collects player portraits. But his sport dates from before his accident.

He has a sister-in-law who organises and oversees his care largely without intervention, except when needed. Gradually the single mother housekeeper becomes involved with the professor’s passion for mathematics – mainly numbers, it has to said. For him, it’s an order that originated with God. Some interesting conjunctions of number are identified. She cares, he enlightens. She learns. That’s the deal. The housekeeper has a young son. He has a rather flat head that reminds the professor of a square root sign. From that moment, the lad is known as Root, even by his mother. I find this not credible. Root and his mother get to know the professor and via him some aspects of mathematics that you might also find in puzzle books.

There’s a bit of number theory – Pythagorean engagement rings, perfect numbers, triangle numbers, series sums and – strangely out of place – Euler’s formula, without explanation or development. An odd conjecture surfaces and our previously non-mathematical housekeeper suddenly adopts all the technical language, the specialist names and even a concept or two without problem, despite typographical and technical errors in the text. Personally, I adore novels that deal with the concept of identity. Usually, however, it’s not its contrast with the concept of an equation that provides the spice.

The professor in Yoko Ogawa’s book seems not to notice the difference, despite his penchant for minute accuracy everywhere else in his life. Via a combination of baseball and numbers Root becomes enthralled, educated and inspired. It’s a good read and I applaud the author’s attempt at blending a mathematician’s passion for his subject with an initiate’s joy of revelation. But disbelief has to be suspended here. When Root is not there, the professor and his housekeeper seem to discuss his needs, despite the professor’s declared inability to remember his existence. There’s the equation versus identity issue above, but then that is related by the housekeeper, so the error might be hers. She, however, seems surprisingly unruffled by the renaming of her son and with ideas that would surely have seemed to be in a foreign language. It’s a bit of fun and worth reading, but as a novel it’s not an achievement.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A review of The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly takes her clothes off for a living. It’s not what you think: she’s a respectable mother of two. She is Knightly by name, but it is her day job that sees her modelling in the nude for art college life classes. Her mother, Clair, used to model underwear. It must run in the family. Her husband, Jake, is – or was, perhaps – an artist.

They met when she was naked and carried on in the same vein. Now they are divorced, if not exactly estranged. He lives out West in Santa Barbara. He has another relationship, with a woman his daughter’s age. Helen tries to mimic. Their daughters are grown up. Helen even has a grandchild. Helen also, and crucially, still has Clair, the mother who now needs almost total care. One fraught day of many, while Helen and her mother exchange superficially meaningless conversation barbed with a mixture of half-truth, nonsense, accusation and innuendo, the octogenarian Clair fouls herself. She seems not a little proud of her odorous product. It falls to Helen to clean up her helpless and apparently resentful mother. And she snaps. 

Almost involuntarily a pillow comes to hand and Helen uses it to smother. It’s a strange word, smother, what daughters do to mothers. Helen now has a problem. Thus The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold becomes a first person account of how she copes with and reflects on her act. There is hatred, compassion, opportunism, in fact more motives beneath the surface than you could count. But on the face of things, there is no single identifiable explanation, other than frustration.

Jake is summoned to lend a helping hand, but his presence just seems to bring memories of life’s unhappiness and disappointment to the fore. Helen tries to relieve her emotional stress via sex, for the first time in a parked car, seducing a friend’s son, apparently for the hell of it, but with Helen there’s always at least a hint of motive. She raises her exploit later when it can be used to compete. She recalls her own childhood, her marriage, her children, her parents, life’s fulfilling moments, its bad times, its threats.

The Almost Moon reminds me of the work of Anne Tyler, where ostensibly ordinary households and families have their skin peeled back to reveal often surprising, sometimes dark innards. The Almost Moon is similar in its forensic detail of family life. But Alice Seybold’s style is always much more threatening, much closer to nightmare tinged with neurosis. The development of the plot is well handled, with Helen’s thoughts never linear, always tending to juxtapose interpreted past, experienced present and imagined future in most instants of her self-analysis. She is a complex person and makes some surprising, even shocking confessions.

The family – every family – is at the bottom of The Almost Moon. Families are full of disparate individuals brought together by an accident of birthright. No wonder they often don’t get on. But then birthright is also a bond, but a bond that sometimes can suffocate. Helen’s first person narrative is powerful. In the circumstances the reader begins to wonder how she might be telling such a story, given the detail it unfolds. We get to know the intricacies of her relations with her husband, lover, mother, father, children and even neighbours. In the circumstances, she seems to have plenty of time. In the end, perhaps the reader is still presented with this same dilemma, but there are suddenly several possible solutions. Don’t expect to be told what to think, and don’t, in The Almost Moon, expect to like the characters, especially Helen Knightly. She certainly would not expect it of you.

The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho - a voyage to somewhere

Whenever I read Paulo Coelho, I feel I ought to be embarking upon a journey. But every time it seems that the trip merely revisits itself and, in the end, I always feel I am back where I started. Now it is just possible that this might just be the point, if point there be.

Surely, then, The Pilgrimage might have taken me somewhere. Obviously it is the story of a journey, and not just any journey. The author becomes a pilgrim and walks – well, almost – the length of the road to Santiago de Compostela. He starts in the French, nay French-Basque Pyrenees. He and his guide – I hesitate to use the word master, with a capital M, that Paulo Coelho employs – spend several days going round in circles. This surely is a premonition of what is to follow.

In his eagerness to achieve an end, Paulo doesn’t notice the lack of progress. His guide tells him he is too eager to reach his goal, that he should recognise the value of experience along the way. It’s the only way to avoid self-deception. Perhaps that’s the point. Paulo takes the advice he is offered and eventually spiritual revelations reveal themselves. The book lists several exercises for the reader to follow.

You can find your Master, learn how to Breathe, feel your Blue Balls and utilise the Capital Letter, sometimes. And though I may have an idea about what Christianity might be, I declare no understanding whatsoever of what the Tradition might involve, despite the fact that it and the achievement of its apparently all-important Sword dominate the book. I was none the wiser at the end, but the advice offered that one should not sit on one’s Sword will be remembered.

Paulo Coelho is a gifted writer and devotees flock to read his books in their multiple millions. What they find there is, perhaps, what he found on his journey to Santiago, which is probably himself, themselves… The process is engaging and enjoyable. It is marginally informative, possibly pretentious, but extremely well done. Like the writer, the reader is drawn to the end of the journey and is left, as happens with most things in life, precisely none the wiser, inhabiting the same persona, suffering the same limitations as at the outset. But then we are also perhaps ready to embark upon the next chapter in the ongoing story. Been there. Seen it. Done it. Will repeat. Sound advice.